A few months ago, wonderful agent Kristin Nelson wrote about the book bidding war and getting a literary agent on her blog. She talked about feeling like some of her recent offers of representation have felt more like entries into a bidding war. I’ve felt the same way, as I mentioned in a post last week. The last six months, when I’ve offered rep, the author almost always already had other interest or got other interest after my offer. (I read very quickly when I’m interested and tend to be the first to offer. This is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.) Most of the book bidding wars I’ve been involved in have been me and two, three, sometimes even five or six other agents. All fighting for the same happy-but-overwhelmed author.
Is the Book Bidding War a Dream Scenario for Authors?
Sounds like a dream scenario, right? Well, not for the agent, obviously, but not for the author, either. They’re stuck making a very important business decision when getting a literary agent: between people who all love their book, who are all good at their jobs, and who are all trying to be persuasive. It’s stressful (I say that having been on the writer end of this situation myself in the past, with six offers blurring on the table in front of me).
I’ve been in this situation a handful times in the last six months or so. I recently saw two of the books I’d offered on announced as sales in Publisher’s Marketplace, under other agents’ names. I was happy for the authors and I love the books, obviously, but gosh darn, I sure wish I could’ve been the happy agent listing those deals. I’m not whining about losing out on these manuscripts at all, and it’s not sour grapes. The author went with the best fit for them and that, at the end of the day, is the best possible thing for everyone involved. The clients I get and the books I sell all happen for a reason. And I do genuinely mean it when I tell the authors who go elsewhere when getting a literary agent that I look forward to reading about a huge sale in PM.
Consider Different Agenting Styles When Getting A Literary Agent
But for me, there are other issues at play in the book bidding war and getting an agent other than, “Gee, I wish I’d gotten that client!” Being the first to offer (usually) and being myself and losing makes me wonder what types of things the other agents are saying that tip the scales in their favor. The last thing I want to do is to disparage any of my brilliant and hard-working agent colleagues, at my agency and outside of it. But there are different agenting styles, and I wonder if my particular agenting style isn’t serving me in this regard. Follow my train of thought a moment…
I pride myself on being a very realistic person. In my line of work, I do a lot of “managing expectations” and I practice a lot of cautious optimism. Lots of writers think they have the next HARRY POTTER meets TWILIGHT on their hard drives. Runaway bestsellers like that are very rare, and they can’t be manufactured. Of course I want all of my clients to do well and to make a living at their writing. And I’d love a runaway bestseller (who wouldn’t!). But I’m also realistic (some might say skeptical).
My Approach: Cautious Optimism
When I offer representation, I don’t make big promises. Of course I love the book. And of course I think I can sell it to a great editor. And of course I’m an editorial agent with ideas for how the manuscript could be even stronger. Otherwise, I would have no business offering representation. It isn’t my job to gush over a book or tell the author how brilliant they are (though I often do). It’s my job to sell that book. So if I think I can do my job, I offer representation. (Learn more about an offer of representation literary agent.) But I also caution the writer that there are no guarantees. And that agents aren’t a magic bullet. (Check out my post that addresses “when an agent doesn’t sell your book” for more info.) Besides, I offer for the long term. I’d love to sell the first book but, if it doesn’t happen to sell, I know there will be another manuscript, or another, to try with. I’m a very longview type of person, which plays into my agenting style.
What I don’t do in the book bidding war is offer the author any sure bets, tantalizing dreams of big sales or tasty foreign rights possibilities. “This’ll be a movie, dahling, starring Robert Pattinson. I’m already casting it in my head!” is a very LA way to go about the whole agent stereotype (sorry, LA!), and it’s really not my style. I obviously want all of that and more for my clients but I wouldn’t talk big and promise even bigger. I’m much less “wining and dining” and much more “let’s work together to create something irresistible to editors.”
There’s also, of course, the issue of track record. I’m a newer agent. I have six sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. Though that’s not a comprehensive view of my sales, that’s the only thing writers can check. The first books I sold won’t be out for another nine months or so. I don’t have years of track record or bestseller clients to woo with… yet. And I’m very conscious that in a “beauty contest” (as we call these competitive situations), these things really do weigh in. (See my how to select a literary agent post for more on this.)
Getting a Literary Agent: What Qualities are You Looking For?
What’s the reason for this recent trend of offers from multiple book publishing agents, then? Or for those times when the book bidding war and getting an agent didn’t go my way? (Luckily, I’ve offered and won many, many more times than this, and I’m thrilled for the clients I do have.) I don’t know. But I’m really curious. As the comments on Kristin’s post mention, it could be an issue of agents hopping on the bandwagon when they hear about an offer. I have to admit, when someone comes to me and says they have an offer of representation, my interest is definitely piqued and I read fast to see if I want to throw my hat into the ring. I want a chance at the fantastic manuscript, too! But it seems like every offer has competition these days. I wonder why that is and, I have to admit, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see how other agents are offering representation.
What would you all prefer in your offer of representation (other than, you know, getting that offer in the first place)? Big, exciting promises or my preferred brand of “cautious optimism”? Is the offer phone call the time to really rip out all the stops and get the writer hyped up or is it a frank chat about the business, the market, and how this manuscript will fit into the big picture?
This whole issue of the book bidding war and getting a literary agent is fascinating! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As a former literary agent, I know what agents and editors are looking for in a manuscript. When you invest in my novel editing services, I’ll help you get over the very first hurdle of having an agent-worthy project to submit.
64 Replies to “Getting a Literary Agent Through A Book Bidding War”
I think I would want to feel like there was a clear game plan.
Ahhhh what a lovely position to be in from the writer’s point of view….although, as you say, rather confusing and stressful. If I were lucky enough to be trying to decide between agents, I’d have to say that their track record with the more well-known imprints would be a major factor. Although if they had a huge client list I’d be worried about falling through the cracks.
I’d want to make sure that I chose someone though who really ‘got’ the book and enthused about it, without wanting to change it into something else. As a Brit we have an in-built suspicion of those who over-sell and promise the world so blockbuster spiel, though tempting, would make me a little hesitant.
Ultimately you want someone you can trust, work with and who you know is totally on your side and has your back.
I think this blog is a fantastic window into who you are as an agent and this would be a huge incentive for me to ‘choose you’ if (as Kylie once put it) I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky. Do you refer your prospective clients here to ‘get a feel for your style of agenting’? I think that would be very enticing!
Here’s to you discovering the next Rowling or Pullman xxx
What candid insight. When a writer is in a position of receiving multiple offers, it’s easy to believe big promises. If three or five agents are duking it out over you, of course it seems inevitable that the same thing will happen on editorial submission. And in the flush of all that praise, it may seem that an agent with the fewest revision suggestions “gets” the manuscript the most. But neither is always true. Sometimes those books sell big, as-is. Sometimes not.
I second Shari’s comment about a game plan. An agent thinking they can sell my book would be a given, I would want someone I could see a long-term future with, someone who loves my style of writing, the ideas I have and so on, not just that one story.
I’d also love an agent who has big dreams, though. Not about big sales/money, though, but rather in a ‘I want the books I sell to touch people’s lives’ way. I’m a strong believer that people who dream and reach for the stars, tend to get a little further than those who don’t.
I chatted with another writer friend at the conference who has agent representation now but is not happy with the current relationship. This agent, during their phone call, told her that her MG ms would be an “easy sell.” Even though she chose to go with the agent and that phrase was music to her ears, it wasn’t an easy sell. At all. In fact, it hasn’t sold. And in hind sight, this writer wishes that she knew a phrase like “easy sell” was not a compliment, but a big fat red flag.
I think anyone who knows anything about this business should know that flattery and promises are empty. (I mean, you want your agent to believe in your work, but flattery in the LA fashion you described triggers my gag reflex.) Realistic, knowledgable strategies are what’s important. As well as relationships. I wanted to know if the agent is from a reputable agency with a trusted name and a proactive approach to establishing relationships. I don’t have a track record (yet) and track record was not the primary thing I focused on.
You know, it’s true. It is exciting, and daunting, and scary, and wonderful to get multiple offers. As far as realism vs. big dreams, I preferred a middle ground. It was important for me to know the agent holds my project near and dear to their heart. Of course, the author wants to hear a little gushing. After all, who wants an agent who doesn’t really like the book that much?
But, realistic expectations are important, too. I didn’t want an agent for fair weather and short terms. I wanted an agent for the long haul.
Here’s what I was looking for:
2. longterm vision
3. great instincts
So…naturally, I chose fabulous YOU! You have all three in spades, lady.
Great post! I am definitely the type of writer who prefers to have it told to me straight. Sure, I’d love a huge deal and movie offers, but you’re absolutely right that those things aren’t always realistic. Yes, I want my agent to be enthusiastic about my manuscript, but unrealistic…no thanks. I do enough dreaming about the big time for both of us, so leave that to me. An agent is there to help me put my best foot forward to editors, whether that means heavy editing before submission or a great pitch when it comes time to submit.
Personally, I think I’d like an agent who is tough but nurturing, and certainly one who is a good match for me communicatively. With an offer, I want an agent’s honest opinion about her role as an agent because you are who you are as an agent. Sure, you might grow and change as you mature (we do as writers), but fundamentally who you are as an agent probably isn’t going to change too much.
I’d like to think that when the time comes, I’ll make the smart choice and go with the right agent and not be wooed by false promises and cheap ego boosts…but ask me again when those things come because I may change my mind. All of us writer are ego-maniacs, aren’t we?!
Realism. Honesty. Passion. Vision.
Not necessarily in that order.
To be honest, I think your style of agenting sounds absolutely perfect. When I start querying next month, I won’t be looking for big promises – I know too much about publishing for that. I’ll be looking for someone who can get behind me and my work, 100 percent. I dream big, but I’m also practical (almost to a fault), so I don’t want someone telling me that they *know* it will sell and they *know* it will be a movie. If a potential agent told me that, even if I didn’t have other offers, I don’t think I’d want to go with them because it would sound too much like they were blowing smoke. I want an agent who’s in it for the long haul, who can tell me practically what my chances are with this manuscript in this marketplace – but also one who will get behind me if the first one doesn’t sell, and will go in full-force with the second.
I guess it boils down to this – in my query, I won’t tell agents that my book will be the next Twilight/Harry Potter/Hunger Games. So I don’t want an agent telling me that, either.
I would prefer that the agent be themselves when offering representation. If it’s not your style to offer big promises, then don’t. Ultimately you and the author are trying to establish a life/career long relationship.
I don’t want to go into a relationship with an agent thinking that they’re one way, only to find out that they are something else. Your approach obviously works well for a lot of authors.
I think that the most important aspect of the decision-making process would be the editorial ideas for my book. If we’re on the same page about how the manuscript should sound and feel, I would feel like we’re headed in the right direction. If I’ve got a touchy issue books and an agent says they want it to feel more GOSSIP GIRL, I know that we’re going to have trouble working together on this project.
I would never be comfortable with gushing and guarantees. I know how subjective writing is. At the same time, doom and gloom isn’t going to work for me either. I need to know my advocate believes that my project could go places, even if the market doesn’t bear that out.
So I guess cautious optimism would be what I’m looking for. And honesty. I don’t want to feel schmoozed. But, Mary…isn’t this process about you making a match, too? I mean if you have clients that constantly need to hear that their book is the greatest thing you’ve ever read and that editors are fools for not seeing that immediately, maybe they’re better off with an agent that is comfortable doing that. I feel like the writer/agent match should be mutual, especially if everyone is thinking long-term.
I’d really be looking at the agent’s willingness to represent me as a whole—meaning all my books. Not just this one. It’s fine if a bunch of agents are offering on the one manuscript, but what happens after that?
I’d want to have the agent offering mention something about that, ask about my other works, what my long term goals are and if they match with the agent’s then SWEET!
The first thing I would want to know is why/how my book resonated with the agent and what can be done to make the MS better. Other traits in my ideal agent:
– A realistic game plan
– Sense of humor
– Knowledge of the market
I don’t need big promises because I know that the book I wrote isn’t typically the kind found on bestseller lists. For one thing, it has no zombies, vampires or ghosts — they’re just your ho-hum regular mortal middle-schoolers. I want an agent who believes in the book itself first and its commerciality second.
Things that would clinch it for me:
1. A solid agency behind them. Even if an agent is new, if they’re associated with an agency with a long time stellar reputation for making sales of good books, they must have something going on.
2. I’m a big fan of critique. I want an editorial agent but I don’t expect them to hold my hand or spend all their time on me. I KNOW I can become a better writer even if you love my ms. I’m a big girl. Lay it on me. If an offering agent didn’t have a list of improvements, I’d be suspicious.
3. I’m not a big fan of “formal” in relationships. Let’s just talk as people. Don’t make me worry about what I’m going to say to you. If the agent seemed too formal, that’d be a turn-off for me.
4. An out of the box type thinker in terms of marketing who likes that about me. A fearless warrior that understands the world of publishing is changing (as is everything), and strict rule followers are going to be left behind and those with big ideas will determine the future. It’s not enough to be an ‘ariste’ today. The art needs to be combined with a head for business.
I’m not at the shotgun approach stage where I’m looking for multiple offers. Yet. I’ve only just dipped my toe in the dark water of querying. I’m still in that magical place where everything is possible and my dream agent is going to love my ms and we’ll all live happily ever after. It’s nice here. I think I’ll stay a bit longer before I jump off this cloud into the harsh reality.
I’d prefer cautious optimism. It would make me feel like the agent was aware of reality. 🙂 However, that may not be for all.
What a timely post. I have been thinking about this very topic all weekend long… and with you in mind. I’ve been getting more and more requests for a full ms on my current project, and I keep thinking about who my “dream agent” would be (you are on my short list). But, what if I don’t get a request or offer from one of my dream agents? I haven’t even sent you a query for fear you’ll reject me. Seriously. Sad.
It’s my job to research agents before I query them. I *should* think we’re a good match at that point, but it can be hard to know for agents who don’t keep a blog or have a web presence.
I want an agent I connect with, one who will be with me for the long haul, one who “gets” what I’m trying to write, and one who can sell my ms. But I fear I will not get a choice… I fear I will only get one offer of representation… if that.
I would choke on my chocolate if more than one agent offered me representation.
And, frankly, for writers to choose another agent over you… they’re crazy. You’ll be fine without them!
The cautious route, no contest.
I want an agent who’s going to be upfront with me. I want an agent who will tell me when they see ways my book could be better. I want an agent who is interested in building a career – multiple books. I want an agent who is the expert and won’t make me feel dumb even when my questions may be. I want an agent who has a good reputation with publishers/editors. (Especially after reading this: http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/what-drives-an-agent-crazy-part-3/)
Bottom line, I want an agent I can trust. Keep being real, Mary. You’ve been an agent for just over a year now and you’re kind of a superstar. It’s working. 🙂
Back in May, I was lucky enough to receive three offers of representation. (Yippee!) I was utterly blown away and completely ecstatic but I was also (like you said) really stressed and overwhelmed. After all, I had been almost ready to trunk my novel because I had received so many rejections!
When it came down to choosing the right agent for me, I was interested in a few main points: track record, enthusiasm, an editorial eye, and someone who I felt comfortable talking to. After I spoke to each agent on the phone, one of them really stood out to me–Jim McCarthy. I was eager to sign with Jim right after our call ended but I forced myself to wait a day or two to mull things over. Plus, Jim had referred me to two of his clients and thought it’d be a good idea to chat with them.
Yeah, his referrals totally reeled me in. :o) I emailed each author three basic questions (“How do you like working with Jim?” etc.) and I expected to receive a brief response. Oh my goodness though, both of the authors replied to me with essay-long emails! They gushed over Jim and how much they enjoyed working with him–and that cinched it for me. That afternoon, I signed with Jim and I’ve been very happy ever since.
At the end of the day, I really liked all of the agents who offered me rep but Jim was the one who I clicked with the most. I know it sounds cliche, but I really did get that “gut” feeling when I spoke to him.
I like the realistic approach, but I want to talk to someone who has a definite plan for my manuscript. I want to know if the agent has an editor in mind to work with and who she thinks she can sell it to during the offer call.
Personally, I want a good editorial agent because I’m a synthesizer… I thrive on feedback, good and bad. So if I had multiple offers (I wish!), I’d need to see how each agent worked editorially and I’d probably lean toward the one that felt write for my style and made me say, “Aha! That’s a great piece of advice for my book.” Second to that would be a game-plan and a willingness to help me grow as a writer and learn what I do well and what I need to work on. I want to be a master wordsmith and I’d want an agent who understood this and wanted to help me produce the best books possible.
I think, for me, the difference was track record. I received an offer of representation from an agent I really liked. Our visions for the book seemed in line and when I spoke with her on the phone, she was very nice with an easygoing style that suited me. Then I received an offer from a second agent who had all of the above, but came from an agency known as a heavy hitter. While I will admit that agent #2 was my “dream” agent, it was not an easy decision because I really felt comfortable with agent #1. In the end, I chose the second agent because she had already proven that she could sell in my genre.
I agree with Lynn and the others who want to know how the agent sees my entire career, not just this one book. So many first books don’t sell (even those ‘easy sells’) that you need to have a game plan for the next one. And the next one.
I met my agent at a conference before my book was finished and because of that subbed only to her. Personalities and expectations are SO important in this relationship (and it is a very complicated relationship) that I would really want to meet anyone I was seriously considering, or if not that, a Skype chat or very long phone call.
Mary, I read an interview with you a while back, and I loved what you said about thinking longterm for your clients and that the best deal didn’t always mean getting the biggest advance.
Well, to be completely honest, at first I was like “Heck, no! I want that 6 figure deal!” But in about 2 seconds logic set in and I realized how much sense you made.
I’m in this for the long haul, I want to do this thing until the senility sets in and I can’t form coherent sentences anymore. If faced with multiple offers, I’d choose the agent that is thinking about my career 20 years from now and not just that first big advance.
This was a GREAT post. I think – being a realist like yourself – there is something to be said for letting your hair down during the beauty contest. Because really, I think it’s all coming down to whether or not the author believes an agent is in love with their work. It may seem like an ego stroke to gush about the book but if you don’t and others do, it might not look cautiously optimistic, it might look like a lack of passion about that particular project. You never know how amazing sales will be so why invest in dissuading the author – why even go that route? If you’re already inclined to offer representation, I’d wonder why the agent wasn’t excited.
I totally understand where you’re coming from – again, that’s how my mind works as well. I’m in it for the long haul and I want to look “realistically” at the industry. But putting myself in the position where I’d have to make a choice between candidates? It would stand out and it’d probably be up to my stressed out mind to create a rationale for the disparity.
For me, it wouldn’t be the big promises or the cautious approach, though somewhere in the middle would be good. It would be the sense that an agent really got my writing and loved the story. And after that, it would be about communication style and did we click on the phone. I’d want to feel like I was in good hands. Big promises can sound shallow. LIke someone said above – I bet that gut feeling plays a big role, along with other clients’ input.
The most important thing for me would be that I feel comfortable asking my questions and dealing with the agent–I couldn’t have an agent that I felt intimidated by. I agree with Adele that they would have to “get” my novel and what I’m trying to do. I also would like an “editorial agent.”
I think it’s so easy for writers to forget that agents deal with rejection just as much (if not more!) as we do. I think we all get a little worried about what’s going on with everyone else in this industry!
As for myself, my personality is one that leans toward optimism. I’d rather have an agent give me a realistic, honest assessment. I’ll provide the dreamy parts myself, thanks!
I haven’t been offered representation, so I can only go based off of what I’d like my agent/author relationship to be if that day does come, and what some people I know have gone through. 🙂
I think the issue here might be that those other agents are catering to the author’s needs, or maybe their desires. There are plenty of authors who may not want to hear the realistic approach of, “I can’t guarantee the sale,” from an agent. After all the querying and rejections, some authors may need to hear about taking their book to that next level.
At least, that’s only what I can infer. Especially if an author has multiple offers, they may want to go with that agent who seems enthusiastic about the sale. I know a number of writers who have had multiple offers, and their primary interest was in that future sale, not necessarily in the long term relationship with their agent. It’s sad, but some writers can lose focus once they get those offers.
For me, I think I would prefer the realistic approach. If I’m going to be choosing that agent, and be in it for the long haul, I would love someone who is realistic about editing, goals, and my manuscript. I think it’s invaluable to an author to have an agent who doesn’t shy away from being upfront. There may be an appeal in the shiny wonder and awe of multiple offers, and being told, “I can sell this book!” But I’d be interested in the how’s, and perhaps more importantly: how to make my manuscript better before it reaches that point.
Mary, when I started reading your post I was reminded of how I feel as a writer on submission, and how desperately I want to see the manuscripts that agents are passing me up for. What are they doing that I’m not doing?
In terms of what I want to hear when I get “The Call”, I want to hear that an agent really likes my manuscript, that they have a sense of where and how to place it in the market, and that they have a working style compatible with my own – full disclosure, editorial, lots of communication through email and telephone. I also want an agent who wans to see the rest of my work, and likes it as well. (I write across a big range, so I don’t want an agent who will discard half of my stuff as “not their thing”.) I’m for lower advances in favor of a marketing plan that will result in my books earning out and more, so I want my agent to be on board with that philosophy. And of course, the agent has to “get” my writing. If their feedback involves major rewrites into a different book, that would be a red flag for me. Suggestions are good, but I wouldn’t want them to change the book so much that it wasn’t the same book anymore. And of course, we have to “click”. It’s indefinable, but I know it when it happens.
I’m too far away from needing representation to have a dream agent in my mind. But I suspect that the reason many agents are going after the same writers is that the needs of editors have gotten very specific and narrow. Then, when one book meets those needs, everyone clamors for it. Perhaps agents are not inclined to nurse a book along towards publication and prefer a sure thing.
Allow me to play Devil’s advocate for a moment.
I wonder, do the other agents who ultimately win out have proven track records and sales driven reputations of their own? I ask because I am curious if they are simply doing a better job of marketing themselves to prospective clients than you are.
My background is in sales and marketing, and I have on more than one occasion sold a product or an idea based not only on my ability to “hype” up its appeal, but also on the strength of my personality. I sold clients on ME, which in turn led them to purchase said product, idea, etc.
I imagine prospective clients (who I assume would have little to no working knowledge of the publishing industry) might see your pragmatic approach to their novel as less than visionary. It would be nearly impossible to compete against other agents whose bravado, when viewed through the eyes of the neophyte novelist, is seen as passion.
Your “reality” is a hard sell in a world where a budding writer has no bearings or perspective. So I guess the question becomes:
Are the agents who are winning out full of air? Do they move from house to house as would a used car salesman from lot to lot?
If so, then you have nothing to worry about. Patience and determination on your part will pay off in the long run, as their reputations for false promises of big money will precede them. I think in time you’ll discover your client list will read less debut authors (who are more easily swayed) and more “seasoned” types.
If, however, you find that these agents are indeed delivering, you may want to consider that their “selling the moon” sales pitch creates an overall attitude that wins clients and editors as well.
In the end, the best salesperson is the one who is true to themselves. You’ll do no favors to yourself or your clients by attempting an aggressive sales posture if that’s not what suits you.
As for me, I promised myself when I began writing my novel that I would seek out newer agents first. My idea being that if they took a chance on someone new like me, I would take a chance on them as well. My only requirement would be to work together to make my novel the best it could be. All I might be losing by not going with a more established agent is the possibility that my novel may not procure as many offers and therefore not make as much money.
But that’s ok Mary, because I can sell ANYTHING.
Such a hard moment to imagine in my head, that first phone call from an agent. I’ve literally been sitting here staring at the screen for the last five minutes, trying not to drool on my keyboard.
I finally had to fast forward past the offer and the acceptance and even that debut novel hitting the shelves to really find my answer.
First and foremost, it’s that hope of a relationship. Someone who tells me when I miss the mark and when I’m right on and when I exceed expectations. And of course, they have to be right! 🙂 By that I mean, they get me and my vision. I’m the car, but they’re the GPS. Without them, I’d be wandering around town, trying to figure out where I’m going or even worse, just sitting in the garage.
But just as important, in the perfect world, I’d also like them to have a fantastic network of contacts. I’d want them to know the best mechanics, the best place to get a car detailed, and the best options for selling a car when the time comes to move on to a new make and model.
For me, I would just look for a good fit, an editorial agent, and someone who would help me feel like I can handle a full time job and being an author. I wouldn’t be put off that an agent is “newer.” As a new author, I feel like someone is taking a chance on me. And the newer agent still has way more experience than me and maybe more enthusiasm and time to devote to me than an agent who has a big client list.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not promising the moon to people who may want you as an agent. I’d rather have the honest advice and as an attorney, give it all the time. There’s no way I can guarantee a result no matter how good I think a case is. It’s the same for books.
I follow a lot of blogs where you offer contests and give advice. I appreciate all the time you devote to it. I would love to have you as an agent if I can ever write something you’d like. I think we authors wonder the same thing as you are. Why didn’t our query get a request for a submission and why didn’t the agent who read it offer to represent us.
I am a hard working, dreaming and realistic writer. Of course, I would love my novels to become the next xyz but I know how unlikely that is. I would prefer an agent to be honest with me. Much more important than that though, is if I get along with the personality of the agent. I do research each agent I query as thoroughly as possible from over here (Germany) but usually, people are different online than they are offline. Not because they do it deliberately but because it’s so much easier to write controversial thoughts that to speak them. If I should ever be in the position you describe, I would probably go with my gut-feeling.
For me, it’s all about the agent being genuinely excited about my ms…and for the ms itself instead of the core concept being salable. I’ve never thought of writing as a big money business, so I’m not concerned with advance size. I’d pass over someone with all the right contacts and promises of the stars for an agent who talked to me about moments they laughed at or how they stayed up all night reading it because they couldn’t put it down. An agent who will go through the mss bit by bit and be willing to share not only critiques but their experience reading it and the parts they enjoyed and their take on it…that’s more valuable to me than anything. That way, even if you don’t make a sale, you come away knowing more about your strengths and weaknesses and have the priceless experience of having someone talk to you about your ms with energy and excitement.
I didn’t have multiple agent offers, but I did have multiple offers from editors, and went through the process of talking to them on the phone, comparing their plans/enthusiasm/etc for my book in order to choose. It isn’t exactly the same, obviously, but I do think that the two most important things for me DO translate:
1) GETTING my book. I need to hear that you get what I’m doing. This isn’t about slathering love. It’s about being on the same page. Do you (agent/editor) love the SAME THINGS I love about my book? It was less about gushing, and more about precision.
2) My gut. I know. That isn’t really helpful. But it was the truest way I knew I was making the right decision. And I do think it’s what it comes down to for many, many authors.
That said, cautious optimism FTW. My agent needs to know the biz, and the biz can be hard, hard reality.
I had four offers of representation and I turned down the most enthusiastic agent of the bunch. I really enjoyed hearing him so excited– but the reality of the situation was, even if he did want to “Take this out NEXT WEEK!” we couldn’t. I was previously repped, and previously published, and I had an option clause to fulfill.
He knew all of this, and when I reminded him of it, he started working on ways to get around that option clause because this book was SO GOOD it needed to go out NEXT WEEK!!! I ended up going with the agent who was realistic about my situation, but still eager to work with me in spite of the complications.
I had several offers of representation, and what ultimately sold me on the choice I made was all about how my agent talked about my writing. She got my writing, and was also an editorial agent. And, based on the conversations I had with the other agents, I felt like we were the best match personality-wise. All these agents had been in the business for a while so it wasn’t a matter of choosing a newer agent over a more established agent. It was all about choosing the best match for a hopefully career-long relationship.
I’d talked to a friend of mine who has published many YA novels and has had 4 agents: She told me that, if possible, you only want to make this decision once.
I think this blog itself gives some insight into the trend you’re talking about. Here I thought I was the only person cyber-stalking agents, but that probably is not the case. In the past, we had a limited amount of information to get us started (in any direction) but now we can find answers to any question we ask in just a few clicks and spend months or years gathering information before we pick up the phone or send a piece of mail. We’re raising our expectations as a culture and becoming increasingly savvy in our professional relationships.
I often work with real estate agents on their marketing and they are noticing a similar trend. When they go to meet with a potential client, the person often announces they are interviewing five other agents before they make their decision. This is new and the agent is left wondering how to distinguish themselves – often the person seems to go with the agent that tells them what they want to hear. So do they tell them they can sell their house for a million dollars, or tell them that if they don’t clean up the back yard it will never sell?
That’s all I can offer since I’m new to the world of publishing, although I will say that for me personally, the experience of the journey is always equal to if not greater than the end goal.
I agree with a lot of these comments, especially Ishta’s. You want an agent to be interested in your career not just your first book. You hear a lot about agents only liking specific things within a genre and I wonder what to do with my mixed bag of picture book delights.
If you know your dream agent will get back to you quickly there’s no need to send it out all over the place. Its the waiting months that puts people off sending it to one person.
Not being intimidated by an agent, easy to communicate with, and telling you straight what they think of something is important to me.
Picture this: You’ve been writing for years, maybe decades. You’ve spent days upon days refining your skills, attending conferences, classes and critiques. Finally, the call comes. Someone wants to rep you. The message is, “cautious optimism.” Though completely appropriate, it might feel like a bit of a let down at that moment.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t want someone making a lot of empty promises in order to “win me.” As the expression goes, “If is sounds too good to be true…”
Overall, the answer is to be yourself. That way, the clients you attract will usually be a good match in the long term.
From an agent, I want an editorial eye, business acumen, association with a reputable agency, long-term relationship and someone who is a champion of my writing. We should be teammates.
Personally, I prefer your style–and I also think anyone who query’s you who follows your blog would know your style and be prepared for it (it is why you are at the top of my list at least).
I want an agent who is honest and who believes in me. I think it shows a lot more faith in a person to tell/show them how the work can be improved, and to be willing to roll up your sleeves to make it even better, in their professional opinion.
Yeah, I’d love to make a ton and have Hollywood banging down my door when my WIP is ready, but I am also realistic, and I have much more respect for an agent who respects my intelligence enough to be honest with me. . . and who is realistic as well. Lying about how wonderful it will be and making pie in the sky promises is not going to do me any favors, and I would be leery of anyone who would talk like that anyway. It all screams of those scams you hear about that fake modeling agents and casting agents run– a little too good to be true.
Give me the honest Mary Kole Approach any day (seriously, give me your style in say 4 months, ha!)
Heidi E, I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I do want to say that not all as yet unpublished writers are completely naive about the publishing industry. A lot of us have done our homework…we may not have gone through the experience of being published yet, but we have been educating ourselves about the industry and have an idea what to expect from our relationships with agents and editors. I know plenty of savvy unpublished writers in the online community.
Doesn’t mean that we won’t have a momentary lapse of reason when faced with a first offer and our excitement gets the better of us. I’m pretty sure once I start subbing my dummy to agents, I’m going to have to restrain myself from shouting “Yes! Yes! A thousand times YES!!” into the phone if I get an offer. 🙂
Sorry if I’m getting off topic, Mary. My bad.
The most important factors for me would be (in about equal order of importance):
1) “getting” the vision of the book (whether it requires revision or not–revising to make the core of the book clearer is good, revising to turn it into some different kind of book than the author intended, bad)
2) able to represent the range of what I write (I have been here long enough to see published authors part with agents because agents did not rep the kind of new book the author had written)
3) enough stability in the whole agent industry for editors to take agent seriously, and for agent not to up and fly off after a year, leaving me looking for an agent again. An agent can be new and working for an agency with decent sales in my genre, and I will take them seriously. (Ie, anyone at your agency, no matter how new, would be completely solid in my book.) But if the agent is new to agenting and their agency has never sold my genre before…well, I’m leery.
I haven’t sold a book yet, but if I were to receive multiple offers of representation I’d probably first lose my mind…
Then, I’d look for the agent that seemed enthusiastic about my work but laid out realistic expectations for me. I hope for a long working relationship with an agent when I do secure one. I have to be able to trust that my agent is not just feeding me the same empty line of sunshine and roses that she gives all of her clients and is willing to drop me if the sale is more difficult than first imagined.
Besides, I’d probably rather shelve my manuscript than accept an offer of representation from an agent who reminds me a little too much of Billy Mayes. There’s a frightening thought…
For me, the personality click between me and the agent would be a major decision factor. Obviously, I’d want a solid agency backing up the agent, but that’s in the bag because I wouldn’t be querying them in the first place if they didn’t. It’s a little scary, though, because I have heard people say they seemed to click over the phone, the deal was made, and things changed. So this is why it wouldn’t be the most important factor (just a major one). Passion for the industry and me as an author (not just my book) would be the most important one. Passion for the industry usually means knowledge of the industry, the ins and outs, because true passion usually includes being totally obsessed about something. I definitely am not looking for a one book agent. I want someone who wants to invest in me as a writer, not just my one story. Another one is how the agent handles the author-agent relationship. I love communication and the so-called “hand holding” type of relationship. Not that I need “hand holding”, but to me that description makes me think of an agent who is actively involved with their clients and their work, willing to give good feedback, suggestions, etc. in order to accomplish what they feel needs to be accomplished for the story to be its best. Communication is a big thing, though. I’m one of those paranoid writers who will think the agent hates me (or my work) if I don’t hear back from them in a decent amount of time.
So really, what is that, 3 things? Personality, Passion, Agenting Methods….yep, that about sums it up. Good post to help me figure all this out Mary, thanks! 😉
I’m all for cautious optimism and a frank chat. Sure, I’d want to know the agent is enthusiastic about the possibility of us working together, but really, knowing that someone loves my ms and believes they can sell it is enough “hype” for me (and the agent wouldn’t be offering if they didn’t love it & think they could sell it!). Plus, I think I’m too much of a skeptic/realist to put my hopes in big promises. What’s more important, I think, is whether or not the author’s and agent’s vision and expectations are a match.
I am not repped, but this is how things are going: I had multiple offers from agents who were willing to work exclusively on revisions before they offered to represent me. So now, not only do editors go to auction to fight for books, and agents duke it out for people they want to rep, but we are moving to a place where writers have to interview several agents before we even get an offer of representation . Yikes!
Cautious optimism, definitely. I know I’ll be overwhelmed if I ever get ONE agent offer, let alone five or six. But the personality factor is going to be important to me, and with my quieter personality, I tend to shy away from overly charismatic people in business relationships. I have a hard time judging whether charisma reflects real competence or just plain bluster. I’d rather just deal with a person honestly.
Wow, it is so interesting to get in the head of an agent. Thanks Mary!
I don’t have an agent and I’m not looking for one at the moment, but I’ve thought about it a lot. I think I prefer your realistic mind-set, Mary, but I do want to get a sense that the agent is confident in his/her ability to sell. I want to feel confident that you are confident, even if there are no guarantees. I want to get the sense that the agent is a go-getter, assertive and strong. I don’t want wishy-washy “We could try this or that,” but “This is what I think we should do and here is why.” I assume the agent has an expertise that I don’t have (which would be why I would hire one,) and I want to feel confident that they really know what they’re doing. Because if the book doesn’t sell I don’t want to think it’s because of an agent, but because there really just wasn’t a publisher for my book at the time.
In short, this is what I hope for in an agent: Realist meets Fireball.
My agent didn’t promise me pie in the sky, nor did I want that. Frankly, if a prospective agent said, “This is going to be bigger than TWILIGHT!” or “I can get you a seven-figure advance for this!” I would be suspicious. We don’t expect a 100% guarantee.
But we do need enthusiasm and optimism, a strong belief that this ms. will sell, and that the agent knows where to take it and how to pitch it.
And rather than saying, “You know, we may not be able to sell this,” what is probably better for the author to know is: “Whether or not we sell this one, I’m definitely interested in other work from you; I want to help you build a career.” I think most authors want to feel that the agent is investing in a career, not just one ms.
I just found your blog and I’m enjoying your “frank chat” approach. So in answer to your question of what an author prefers, frank chat or hyped-up phone call, give me the frank chat any day. There is already more than enough hype out there; I’ll stick with the real deal.
Also, what a great quote in your comments about a writer’s day job: “When you have all day to do something, you usually figure out a way to take all day to do it.” Very well put. And it explains why I was a successful newspaper reporter for six years. I DID’NT have all day to write the stories (they call it deadline for a reason), and I got it done. Won awards, yada, yada. It also explains how I taught middle school full time and managed to write two books (one an unsold middle-grade novel). And I’m beginning to think it’s distantly related to the 20/80 rule: 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. In other words, the doers do. Especially when they don’t have quite enough time.
Thanks for a great blog.
As a writer, I tend to think of agents as powerful and invulnerable, so it’s nice to know that you all are human. 🙂
I appreciate cautious optimism, but what I most want in an agent is someone who loves and gets my work.
I’m enjoying your blog and especially this post. As an author with several as-yet-unpublished books (well, okay, unfinished too), I would be much more comfortable with someone who does not make overblown promises to me. I don’t even want a huge advance that I need to live up to.
I dislike hype. I dislike false expectation. I’d take honesty and reality over a promises-filled, overblown song and dance any day.
Unless there’s actual singing and dancing. I have my weaknesses.
There are a few things that would tilt me in favor of one agent over others:
1) Proven competency in the field. I don’t need someone who’s had a zillion sales, but I need to know they can get my book in the hands of the appropriate editors and represent my novel admirably. Which publishing houses might be best to pursue? Do they have any editors in mind? Plans. Strategies. Analysis.
2) Gives excellent–not good, but *excellent*–editorial notes which show a sharp grasp on writing craft. Not talking about line editing; I mean development of story structure, tension building, character arcs etc. I want to write as well as I can and my ideal agent would be adept in the foundational elements. It’s my job to write the novel, of course, but in discussing the writing, we need to be on the same page and speak the same lingo. Beautiful book people together as one.
3) I’d need to click with them, personality-wise. For instance, is the agent’s taste in books similar enough to mine? One can never be sure about this, but having worked many years in a bookstore, I know there’s a certain consistency in the types of people who read types of books. I usually get along with people who like what I like. Also, I write the kind of book I’d enjoy reading. I want to be sure my agent would enjoy it too.
Basically, a clever agent with guts and confidence who’s still professional and likable. If that comes across when I communicate with an agent, I would be likely to place them high on my list, were I fortunate enough to be in such a situation.
This is assuming all these criteria wouldn’t fly away and be free, leaving me with a phone in my hand and no memory. I should make a list once I start submitting, just in case. Phone calls are so nebulous.
This post is something near and dear to my heart. I was fortunate enough to have 8 offers of rep from agents, and what you mention about the stress involved is very true. It started with one offer, then another an hour later, and another 2 offers the next couple days. Then, on the day before my “deadline,” I received a whopping 4 more offers. I was forced to push my deadline back a day, and took the day to consider all 8 agents. I contacted the agents and told them I needed that day to think, and every agent sent me a long email “pitching” him or herself again. Don’t get me wrong, I was not whining about my situation, but it was very tough to take everything in.
In the end, I made the right choice for me. The one that felt right. It was difficult to contact the other agents and let them know I was going with someone else, especially the first to offer. However, the things that pushed me toward that one agent were: (1) her 25+ years of expertise in the pub business, (2) her strong editorial background (worked with idols of mine, and I thought she could help me improve with every book), (3) she was realistic and didn’t promise the moon (when an agent promised a six-figure deal, I crossed them off because it told me they were painting a picture they couldn’t promise to paint), (4) my conversations with her just felt “right” to me, and (5) she specializes in MG/YA.
With my manuscript now out with editors for a couple days (subbed 2 days ago), I feel like she helped me craft a stronger story, and I feel her contacts will help match me with the right ed/publisher.
I have to agree with most of the other responses – if an agent promised me anything beyond his/her undying enthusiasm, encouragement, and overall agently support, I’d cross him or her right off the list.
I signed with an agent after giving her an exclusive the day I finished my book (she had already requested a revise and resubmit on another book). While she’s knowledgeable and a good friend, what was lacking for me was enthusiasm and a common vision for the book. We parted ways a couple months later.
I wound up with several offers for representation shortly thereafter and man, that was terrifying. Everyone had a completely different vision! That helped me narrow things down some, so I went through and thought about each individual agent’s strengths.
One in particular sounded like a total kindred spirit and talked about how we’d have awesome three-hour conversations over a bottle of wine about the psychology of my characters (I’m a psych major – complex characters are very important to me). Her vision for the book and my career were fabulous. She’s also an industry giant, so I thought, score!! This is perfect!
But then I got to thinking about the lesser known agent on my list who was the first to offer. She has this eerie gift for teasing out the tiniest plot details I skim over that completely flesh out my worlds, which is a weakness of mine. I hang up after our conversations in shock most of the time. How could I have missed such-and-such element?? OMG – do you know what this means?! It’s hilarious.
Her strengths compliment my weaknesses, she reps everything I write (the other didn’t), her enthusiasm is unmatched, and we achieved agent-author mind meld almost immediately. She’s perfect for me.
So if I had to make a list of things to consider when choosing between multiple agents, it would go in this order:
Vision for your career (including genres, voice, POVs, etc)
Vision for the book
Strengths and weaknesses of the agent contrasted with your own
Would I have been in excellent hands with the other agents on my short list? Totally. Would my book be what it is right now? Nope. I love what my agent teased out of the plot and what we’re going on submissions with. In the end, that’s all I can ask for.
I don’t have unrealistic expectations of author grandeur. I know, first hand, the percentage of super success rate(or not). I just want an agent.
I would have been dubious of any agent who promised me movie deals and NYTimes best seller lists. When I signed, I signed with an agent who told me that my book made her cry and there was no greater compliment. It touched her as a reader and I knew then that she would be the right advocate for my work. She spoke about my characters in the same way I did, as if she knew them and totally understood who they were. We’re out on sub now and I know that, whatever happens, that I’m working alongside someone who believes in the story I wanted to tell.
If and when I look for an agent, I would want someone who is realistic. However, I also want someone who will help me go above and beyond.
I don’t want an agent to be happy with whatever they can get, because they don’t think they can get anything else. I want an agent who will put just as much effort into finding a publisher as I did in writing the manuscript. That is the only thing I see wrong with the pessimistic approach.
If you are too pessimistic then you don’t try to reach for those dreams that are amongst the stars; and if you don’t reach for them, then you can never attain them.
I would much prefer to have an honest, realistic relationship with an honest and realistic agent! My goal would not be for a personal ego boost. I want real success. So, I want real constructive input. I would not want to be built up into a frenzie only to be disappointed at reality! I would appreciate your approach.